EVOLUTIONARY GOVERNANCE: Part I: Principles

A wooden walkway winding through ferns and trees in a lush green forest.

“The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence — it is to act with yesterday’s logic.”

Peter Drucker

How can nonprofits meet the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) era that we live in? How can they be governed to support the emergence of the new and different solutions so desperately needed? How can we move beyond old forms of governance that no longer serve?

  • The ED is happy, feels supported, and never feels alone.
  • The Board, ED and staff stay in alignment.
  • The experience of being on the Board, rather than being a dry duty, is instead a joyous, invigorating, awakening and personally fulfilling adventure.
  • The organization is aligned from top to bottom, and therefore nimble and able to respond rapidly to changing contexts and circumstances.
A white flower bud, with green leaves, sprouting up through cracking black pavement.

“Complex systems have a process of emergence…Emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions.”

— Nick Obolensky

Acknowledging Precedents

THREE CORE PRINCIPLES OF EVOLUTIONARY GOVERNANCE:

We began with three principles, which are practiced by the Board and the ED, and are encouraged in the staff as well:

  • Light touch: The idea that a great deal can be accomplished by being receptive to what wants to emerge, and titrating small steps out of that awareness.
  • Minimal structure/tensegrity: Minimal structure — a concept from improvisational arts — is about finding the least amount of structure to provide the conditions for alignment and diversity most advantageous for co-creation. The word “tensegrity” is a combination of two words “tension” and “integrity”. The minimal and flexible structure and connection of all the moving parts provide optimal balance, strength and resilience of the whole; it is an organizing approach that liberates movement and releases energy.
  • Holding shared power and responsibility in the spirit of collaboration, mutual trust and listening. The notion of heterarchy versus hierarchy is a helpful construct — where leadership and power is distributed to where and who in the system is in the position to best exercise it; a power-sharing model. The ED, while not a voting member of the Board, is empowered in and with the Board, similarly to how shared power operates within the staff of DreamRider.
  • Leaving our egos at the door. We release the need to prove our worth, be seen as smart, etc., and rather be willing to sit in presence and being, so there is space for what wants to emerge, rather than merely what we think should happen.
  • In her dealings with the Board, Vanessa doesn’t have to spend hours preparing arguments or strategizing around how to “lead from behind” (as one sector workshop called the manipulations that EDs go through to get their Boards to make the right decisions). She can come to the Board with her anxiety, fears, concerns, as soon as they arise, without fear of ‘how the Board will react’. The Board will hold space for her, sit with her in her feelings about what’s going on with DreamRider, and sense into what truly needs to happen now, whether that be attending to old patterns in Vanessa that are blocking what wants to emerge, or advising on actions to take in the organization.
  • This is the piece that Vanessa says, “removes the bane of most EDs’ existence, which is a terrible sense of loneliness in the role.”
  • DreamRider is seen in interconnectedness with nature, kids, teachers, partners, funders, staff, Board and ED. The field is the energetic expression of the sum of all of these parts in communication with each other. This field we might also call the “core essence” of DreamRider, and the Board’s job is seen as tending to the health, wellness and development of the organization in alignment with that core essence.
  • Vanessa releasing a block in her internal life will shift the DreamRider field, as Vanessa’s energy affects the web of interrelationships and energy of DreamRider. (“Shit flows downstream”, and so does wellbeing).
  • This principle widens our focus, so we are not caught in boxes.
  • Supports inclusivity of the whole person, of all the people in the field. As staff member Cinthia says: “I don’t have to put on my business face.”
  • Expands perspective and informs better choices for the whole.
  • Takes our attention away from the purely conceptual and into a felt-sense of the whole.

“We all bask in what we get from DreamRider — I am profoundly renewed and uplifted by being in the field with the Board” — Kate Sutherland, Chair.

Six kids and two adults, dressed in colourful superhero costumes, are posing like heroes at the side of a wooden pier.
Characters from DreamRider’s Planet Protector Academy program.

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Vanessa LeBourdais

Vanessa LeBourdais

Recognized by Ashoka Changemakers as a global leader in digital environmental education, Vanessa is a producer, director, writer and anti-racist activist.